May 01, 2012

From GRC: Inside the Room with an NIH Study Section Member

One of the primary goals of GRC’s Health Research and Education Task Force is to give GRC members an in-depth look into the peer review process at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). To this end, Dave Stone, Associate Vice President for Research at Northern Illinois University and task force co-chair, interviewed Paul Silvia, Associate Professor of Psychology, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, who spoke at GRC’s February conference. Silvia also has served on NIH’s Social Psychology, Personality and Interpersonal Processes Study Section. This interview is a rare window into the NIH review process, and a great resource for GRC members. In the coming months, the Health Task Force plans to interview more NIH reviewers from different study sections.

Silvia’s interview addressed general issues with which all study sections deal, and the following important points were made:

  • Literature review: Reviewers will be looking for the significance and relevance of the proposed project through the literature cited. Investigators should already know why their research is significant, and include at least two reasons justifying the work by the second paragraph. Investigators should also indicate a clear link to a public health problem;
  • Methodology: Despite shorter page limits it is still important to include everything. NIH is very interested in statistical power. And to establish credibility, investigators should always include a timeline. This helps reviewers answer the question of feasibility – can the researcher actually accomplish his/her project goals? Silvia suggested that reviewers are not as concerned about investigators addressing Plan B if the project fails to meet its objectives;
  • Personal statement in the biosketch: Silvia recommended applicants pay close attention to this. Investigators should list their research background, their training, and their publication history to make the case for why they are doing this particular project. Reviewers often have a hard time connecting the credentials of the investigator to the proposed research;
  • Impact scores: While the impact score involves being judged on five criteria (significance, investigator, innovation, approach and environment) Silvia said the most important of them are significance and approach. Innovation is more appropriate to address in R21 applications where high risk research is valued. Investigator and environment criteria (while important for R15 proposals) are a given in most R01 applications;
  • R15 level of effort: Silvia said one course buy-out plus summer effort should be sufficient to establish that the research can be accomplished. He suggested at least 50 percent effort in the summer, plus 10-20 percent effort during the academic year;
  • Addressing issues of women, children (NIH considers people 18 to 21 as children) and human subjects in the application: Silvia emphasized this section receives more attention from reviewers than investigators may assume. It is especially important to address research subject sampling. Investigators need to be pro-active in addressing limitations to the subjects available in their regions of the country, and include a collaborator where feasible; and
  • Grouped applications: NIH now starts each session with reviews of R01 applications from new and early stage investigators so it may benefit investigators to identify themselves this way. Silvia also said R15 applications receive a huge benefit from being ‘clumped’ because these reviewers are more familiar with the R15 criteria. In closing, Silvia said review committees haven’t seen many R03 (small grant) proposals recently due to their limited funds. R03s are typically used now to leverage funds on an ongoing R01 grant.

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